Sunday, May 06, 2012

on solaris: the ocean, the other

1. Every time I am down by the ocean, the nearby North Sea, I think about Solaris. This might not be an obvious connection, I suppose, but I've been mulling it over a lot since I came back to live by the sea, and I think I can trace all the threads, now. 

Since I never grew up around the ocean, it is still especially mystifying to me. I am still learning about tides, the ebbs and flows, the surging and sucking pull of the moon. Still learning to recognize the lapping patterns of waves on the sand, the coal-black yet shiny mica rippling up, the wind- and wave-tossed pebbles piling in ribbons stringing the shore. I watch the birds interact with the water, shaking feathers in the surf, watching dunlins and sanderlings scurry back and forth, out and in, mirroring the crash and flow of the waves. 

When the tide is high, the white crests riding and the sun is burning out silver patches into the horizon, there is a certain ominousness there, out on the bay. Not frightening, but there is something immensely grand about it, that leaves a lingering reminder that this is something too vast, too physically and metaphorically deep to grasp or understand. The sea becomes something cerebral, and I mean that literally -- it seems as if it is a vast mind, a brain, in its opacity. Speculating about the expanse and its nature is much like attempting to think about your own consciousness; I feel the same nausea sometimes, with it, a true sea-sickness, similar to that I get when I ponder the whys and wherefores of the universe, or the intangible aspects of the process of death. 

We like to think the sea is predictable, too, mapping and measuring the tides, for example, and publishing tables, etc, sending out submarines to survey its topology, model the trenches and abysses, the underwater mountain ranges and depressions, and the depth of the water that fills and covers them.

 But there is only generality, there only ever can be. We might think we know where the waves will reach, what the water will do -- but every wave itself is utterly unpredictable, a constant singularity forming and reforming in the midst of infinite pluralities, that never-the-same ever-the-sameness. And it is like a mind, every wave like a flicker of consciousness, flowing, breaking, reconnecting. 

When I was very young, I think I was under the strong impression that water was alive. Why else would we talk about 'running water'? Water in lakes, I supposed, was just resting for a while. Sleeping, perhaps. When I learned about languages that classified rivers as animate and lakes as inanimate nouns, I remembered my early belief, and realized I still hold something of that conception. I think of how I interact with ocean, when I am there wandering along the very edge, and the waves are frothing in, long rippling arcs of foam spreading over the smoothing of the sand -- I think of the unexpected waves that seem to reach farther in, reaching out to touch my feet, grasp at me, at the little twig-legs of the frantic sandpipers, the small wavelets rushing in to meet me, it seems, as I pass by. 

And it is this moment of contact, between myself and this great ocean, this unknowable mass, that makes me think of Solaris. 

2. So when I talk about Solaris, I am mostly thinking about the book by Stanislaw Lem, and its planet that is a lifeform, alive and sentient, covered with an ocean that seems to be breathing, acting, reacting, thinking. Like the ocean that seems to surge close to me as I walk along, washing my boots in the waves, Solaris sends out 'mimoids' and other strange shapes and forms, in attempt to communicate with the scientists who are poking and prodding it with x-rays and all manner of instrument, trying to understand something utterly non-human and thoroughly unintelligible.

And when I talk about Solaris, I am of course also thinking about the film by Tarkovsky (not Soderbergh! Don't even pay attention to that!), even though Lem wasn't completely pleased by that attempt at interpreting his work, and parts of it I feel are horribly melodramatic -- but nevertheless, this fan-made film trailer for Tarkovsky's Solaris is actually quite beautiful and gives decent sense of what we are dealing with, here.

So -- Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, travels to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris to investigate some troubling reports that recently came to light, as scientists studying the planet -- a sentient being -- seem to have caused some great disturbances in their attempts to communicate. 

Like the uncertainty principle of quantum physics, in which studying subatomic particles essentially affects the subatomic particles themselves, communicating with Solaris affects the planet itself. (How do you separate the observer from the observed? I don't think you can, especially not here.)

And then as Kelvin starts to settle onto the station, puzzled by the other scientists' allusions to the 'constructs' and the 'visitors', he is visited by his wife, Hari, who died ten years previously. She committed suicide after he left here. And now here she is, not quite aware of who or what she is, either. No one really knows. 

3. Not long after my Dad passed away at the end of last August, I had a number of different dreams, in which he appeared in different forms. Most of them were not traumatic dreams, though some of them did involve repeated dyings. The most disturbing of all, however, was one in which I saw a person identical to my father walking through a great wave of people. 

The crowd thinned as we approached each other, and I opened my mouth to speak, smile, but when I looked at him, he didn't see me. He couldn't see me at all, perhaps he couldn't see anyone. This image of my Dad, exactly as he had been, grey sweatsuit and feathery hair, just as he was the day he left home for the hospital for the last time, floated past without acknowledging my presence. He just kept walking, eyes unseeing of me. I tried to reach out, and received nothing. The residue of this dream ached for days. 

The dead returning to us in their human form is of course a common and terrible wish -- something perhaps we yearn for even as it terrifies us, because we know it will never, ever suffice, it can only distort. And perhaps we know that even if possible, there would be no great revelation, maybe not even recognition; Hari certainly can't provide anything for Kris. 

"I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that remained" (Lem, in Solaris, p. 204, trans. by Kilmartin and Cox).

For me, it was as if this dream was illuminating a great rift, the space between those living and those passed on in our daily lives, that there something so unknowable and incomprehensible, things we just cannot grasp with our mind's little hands, even if we try to make them as fluid and flexible as the surface of Solaris.

4. There is a lot I could say about Solaris. There are even quite obvious parallels to doing anthropology and fieldwork that I suppose I will write about sometime. But right now my thoughts are about the self, and connection, and communication, and how we aspire to understand ourselves through the Other.

In a key scene, which you should watch here, Dr. Snaut has Kris Kelvin read from Don Quixote. A little later on, Snaut denounces science (and its professed aims of exploration and understanding of other life forms) as useless here.

"We have no interest in conquering any cosmos" he proclaims. "We want to extend the earth to the borders of the cosmos. We don't know what to do with other worlds. We don't need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle for contact, but we'll never find it [...] Man needs man".

As Lem apparently once said about his Solaris ocean, 'I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images'. And so here, they are trying so hard to communicate with Solaris, and Solaris is attempting to reply, sending them these visions, these simulacra, more mysterious unknowable forms -- it is indeed acting like a mirror, sending people manifestations of memories they try to control, forcing them to face people and circumstances they might prefer to keep hidden, that they strive to suppress. These are the words it uses to communicate, by showing the characters parts, elements of memory, that are of themselves. 

Solaris is not only about the limits of our abilities to understand things that are alien, non-anthropomorphic, that are not-us, that are so wholly Other -- but that we are never really looking for the Other. In the other, we only want to understand ourselves, our own lives as humans, both on a collective and individual level. And we always look to others. We move into that between-ness -- as Levinas noted, 'between-ness functions as the fundamental category of being' -- and we seek ourselves.

The simulacra are not of Solaris, they reveal nothing of Solaris except that perhaps it, too, is trying to understand itself through its encounter with the humans. By isolating memories that are painful, strong, and evoke emotion, is it trying to illuminate its own nature? Or is that supposedly foreign ocean just a repository of all our memories, the things we cannot understand, the truly un-fathomable?

Like death, like the ocean, Solaris is the ultimate Other. It attempts to 'offer that world to another' (Levinas) through its alien speech, attempting to communicate through these strange resurrections,invocations of the humans' memories that they, unconsciously, have offered to the planet. 

So many summations of Solaris, both book and film, always state that it's all about something like the 'inadequacy of communication between humans and non-humans', but I think it goes further than that. The futility of communication between humans and Solaris is telling, yes, but it is just another simulacrum, that pair, for human-human attempts. We can never really understand another mind, human or non, perhaps. We will never know all of the ocean, ever, just as we will never know all of another human's mind, no matter how close. But we will always try, and we need to do this. It's the only reason we exist. 

all photos taken in late February, early March 2012, Aberdeen City Beach.


Saturday, May 05, 2012


Nest amongst willow and kalyna, lower Riverlot, late October 2011

Last autumn, when the leaves fell, I began to collect nests. Amongst the bare bones of the birches and aspens, and nestled in the elbows of the high-bush cranberry bushes at Riverlot, abandoned homes became visible and I documented them all.

 Fallen nest, upper Riverlot, December 2011

Some had fallen onto the snow in the windstorms, small dried slivers of grass in the hatchings unraveling, revealing how the spaces had been insulated with moss and tufts of fuzz. 

Wind-fallen nest (same as above), upper Riverlot, December 2011

It looks tragic, but not all birds ever return to their old nests; some, who lay two batches of nestlings each summer even build separate creches for each group. Most grown birds (those that do not build inside holes) do not shelter or sleep in them, either. They are just small refuges for the flightless young ones, until their wings are strong enough.

Magpie's nest, upper Riverlot, early October 2011

All the magpies here have been busy for  the last month, scurrying around selecting twigs for their new hutches, which take weeks to construct and often involve multiple stories. But they too will use these homes only once; they may nest again nearby, however, and dismantle their old nests, selecting the best bits for prized parts in their new nooks.

Magpies made a hoop-like nook at upper Riverlot, early October 2011

If a nest remains un-recycled, sometimes other species of birds who don't seem to fancy the construction process will select one that has remained intact, often for a season or two, proving its safety and durability.

(Thinking of these nests, I think of my own life over the past three years, never living anywhere for more than a year, and generally less than. 9 months in Scotland, 3 in Alberta, 10 months in Yakutia, 6 in Alberta, another 4 in Scotland, with so many flights back and forth in between. I am more than migratory...)

Another cranberry nest, upper Riverlot, early October 2011

No one is really sure why birds tend to not return, even those that stay the winters, preferring instead to reconstruct and deconstruct, an endless process of nesting and re-nesting. Even the passerines, the perching birds, are not still for long. Most of their lives are movement, settling and sleeping are just small blinks, flutters of the eye in the path of a long flight.

(Dipper's?) nest in the rockledges at Grotto Canyon, near Canmore, early January 2012

I like to think that perhaps they are just better at cultivating and making peace with impermanence, mindfully hastening the change. Each carefully placed twig and tuft is like the pouring of sand into a mandala that is never meant to last; whether it is the wind or hand or claw that sweeps it away, shakes out their wings, and flies on.